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Project controls explained: Q&A with an RPS project specialist

RPS Technical Director Mridul Dutt discusses the what, when, why and how of project controls, and why it’s a worthwhile investment in today’s world of complex programs.

10 May 2023 | 1 min read
Mridul Dutt

Asia Pacific

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Mridul Dutt, Technical Director - Capability Systems, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
Mridul Dutt, Technical Director

Q How do you explain project controls to the uninitiated?

To manage any project well, you need to strike the right balance between three variables - cost, scope and schedule. When these factors get out of balance, things can go wrong – project timelines get extended, budgets blow out, and scope creeps.

Project controls is a methodology and a process for effective project/program management. It encompasses the people, procedures and tools needed to plan, monitor and manage your variables through every phase of your project’s lifecycle – from beginning to end.

As project controls specialists, we provide a service to the project manager or project management office (PMO). We interact with contractors, engineers and clients – but when it comes to working out how to best set up a project and manage the cost or risk elements associated with it – that’s where we really get involved.

We not only provide advice, but also digital tools like myProjects, Primavera ERP/SAP, @Risk, Aconex and Power Bi etc to support people in balancing those three variables, and ultimately deliver everything according to plan. Often we will develop interactive dashboards that provide PMO personnel with a visual overview and detailed information about their portfolio and the status of their projects.

Project controls is not a one size fits all. We figure out where gaps could lead to problems and set things up so issues are less likely to occur. We develop a customised management strategy that’s specific to the project, client, contract type and delivery environment.

Q The focus on project controls seems to be growing, but where did it start?

Project controls as a separate, standalone discipline (linked to but distinct from project management in the broader sense) – originally started in the oil and gas industry. It was later adopted in the mining sector.

The scale of work happening in those industries – say the development of a new oil and gas refinery – requires such a huge volume of procurement for parts and components. Procurement itself is a huge management challenge and if you don’t stay on top of that, then your entire timeline gets delayed, and your costs go up which affects investment decisions.

There’s a lot of detailed analysis and planning required to understand when components are available, and when they need to go for construction and operational maintenance etc. These industries were quick to recognise the value in specific people and tools to manage the processes of engineering, procurement, and construction.

We are now seeing a lot of infrastructure projects – rail and road initiatives especially – adopting project controls principles. They’ve also got complex processes in terms of scheduling, from land development to environmental clearance, community engagement and construction, so infrastructure project owners and teams are seeing the value in project controls as a service.

My passion is for business transformation, because at the end of the day that’s what I see project controls people are doing – supporting businesses and creating the foundations for strategic and effective digital transformation.

Mridul Dutt

Technical Director

Q When and how should project controls be incorporated into a project’s workflow?

It depends on the maturity of the client and their project management office (PMO) - read more about maturity assessment for PMOs here - but ideally, project controls should be involved from the very beginning when project teams are making an investment decision.

During the initial phase, it’s very important to understand (at a high level) the nature of your three important variables. What is the expected timeline for delivery? What do you expect it to cost? And what risks do you expect to face along the way?

With that information, the project controls specialist can create a framework and provide advice on how to get that project through the different lifecycle phases and stage gate milestones – initial concept, pre-feasibility, execution and delivery etc.

At each of these phases, the project controls specialist is there to help you understand how your variables are coming together and ensure things don’t get out of balance.

For example, during the concept phase while you are getting drawings and design work done, the project controls person is working to help you understand the costs associated not just with the proposed end product, but also the cost of doing the concept design process itself.

Q What kinds of projects is your team working on at the moment?

We are doing a lot of work in the renewables space at the moment – getting more and more involved in that as the level of investment grows – and also a lot in rail infrastructure projects.

Renewables is interesting, as even though we say it’s a “new” or emerging industry, a lot of the clients who are working in or entering that market are in fact energy and mining companies – the ones who pioneered project controls and have been running projects that way for a long time.

So, renewables is a natural growth area for the project controls industry – not to mention an exciting sector to get involved in!

Q What makes you so passionate about project controls?

I originally started out my career as a project manager, but when I joined a mining organisation I got much more involved in portfolio optimisation and management. That really showed me what project controls is, and what value project controls people can add.

My passion is for business transformation, because at the end of the day that’s what I see project controls people are doing – supporting businesses and creating the foundations for strategic and effective digital transformation.